December 7, 2017

Worcester Senator now leading the chamber

Harriett Chandler is the state's second-ever female Senate president.

Harriette Chandler was born in 1937, the year the first woman -- Sybil Holmes of Brookline -- was elected to the Massachusetts Senate.

Chandler on Monday night became the second woman ever to lead the Senate, elected as acting president after a day of closed-door talks on how to forge ahead during an ethics probe borne out of sexual misconduct allegations.

"I have been elected to a job I never thought I'd hold - under circumstances I'd never wish to repeat," Chandler posted on Facebook Monday night. "But don't get me wrong, I will still fight for Worcester, for Boylston, for Clinton, for Holden, for Northborough, for Princeton, and for West Boylston, just as I always have. Tomorrow is a new day in the Massachusetts Senate."

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg asked to take a leave of absence from the presidency while the Senate Ethics Committee and a special investigator look into allegations of sexual assault, harassment and Senate interference against his husband, Bryon Hefner. The investigation will seek to determine whether Rosenberg acted improperly or violated Senate rules.

Chandler, Rosenberg's top deputy, was unanimously backed by her colleagues to assume the role temporarily. She plans to step down after the investigation.

"There's broad consensus, I think, that Harlee Chandler is our person," Sen. Eric Lesser said Monday night, referring to Chandler by her nickname. "She's the majority leader, she's universally respected."

By Wednesday, four of her Democratic colleagues were already poised to compete to succeed Chandler should the Senate not return Rosenberg to the presidency, adding to Chandler's challenge of bringing stability to an unsettled chamber.

"I'm more concerned about it making it difficult to move forward with these rumblings going on," Chandler said, according to the Boston Globe. "I think we're going to have to talk about that."

A Democrat who has served in the Senate since 2001, Chandler was the first female senator from Worcester, and at 79 years old, is the oldest senator currently serving.

After attending high school in Wilmington, Delaware, Chandler studied political science at Wellesley College, graduating in 1959, in the same class as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Fourteen years later, she earned a doctorate in international relations from Clark University, followed by an MBA from Simmons College in 1983.

In October 2008, Chandler and her husband Burton, an attorney, graced the cover of "Vitality" -- a central Massachusetts publication with the tagline, "A magazine for active adults" -- as one of Worcester's "Power Couples."

Chandler recounted her path to office for the magazine -- after college, she taught high school, "but soon after decided to enter the business world," so returned to grad school. She said she ran for School Committee after deciding mid-career that she wanted to give back, and then began serving in the state House of Representatives in 1995.

At the time of the article, she was assistant vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, backing a bill that would give equal pay to women in state jobs, and had recently been a key figure in the state's 2006 health care access law.

In her second term as a state rep, in 1997, Chandler was named House chair of the Legislature's Health Care Committee, alongside Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford. Montigny on Monday night nominated Chandler as acting Senate president.

Chandler has remained involved in health care issues, this session working with Sen. James Welch to lead the group that researched and wrote the sweeping health reform bill that passed the Senate 33-6 last month.

The bill includes a measure for which Chandler has long advocated in hopes of expanding oral health care access for vulnerable populations -- the establishment of a mid-level class of dental providers, known as a dental therapist.

She was the Senate sponsor of a bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed Nov. 20 that requires health insurance plans to cover most types of contraception without co-pays, a measure aimed at insulating Massachusetts from federal changes to Obamacare's birth control coverage mandates.

"If Washington is going to be hostile to the programs and policies we know work, then we need to be prepared to act," she said at the signing ceremony.

Chandler is taking the helm of a body that currently has 32 other Democrats and six Republicans -- soon to be seven, after Fitchburg's Dean Tran won an open seat Tuesday -- and where members often tout their bipartisan approach to governance even though Democrats don't need to count on Republican votes.

Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, a Republican whose district overlaps with Chandler's in the towns of Holden and Princeton, said coming from different parties "never got in the way of our ability to work together and collaborate on issues that are important to the citizens of our cities and towns."

She said Chandler "was always very supportive and kind and good to work with" and "always happy to have our conversation about our families, our lives, things like that."

"I think she'll do fine. I think she has a lot of work to do," Ferguson told the News Service Tuesday. "Sadly, it's a very difficult time for the Senate and they're doing the best that they can and dealing with it. I think today's a new day for her, and there's a lot of work to be done."


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